I’m pulling thoughts together on a pro-life presentation I’ll be giving next week and have settled on ‘suffering’ as my topic, as it is an underlying rationale to much that we call the ‘culture of death,’ but is not usually targeted directly. By the time this little essay is done, you’ll see how ‘suffering’ and the ‘culture of death’ tend to go hand in hand, but to summarize: when suffering is the greatest (nay, virtually the sole) unequivocal evil in one’s worldview, then one often concludes its better to die–or to kill–than to live. This is why arguments for abortions, especially for fetal anomalies, often seem identical with arguments for euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc.
Ironically, Christians are accused of being indifferent to suffering. It is ironic, because in any objective look at the matter, at Christianity’s core is God’s ultimate answer to suffering. The reason why Christians are accused of being indifferent to suffering, especially in our day and age, is because they cannot go along with the secular tidal wave which views suffering as so serious a matter that it is frankly better to be dead than to suffer. To put it differently: suffering–yes, even the alleviating of suffering–is a very important part of Christianity, but it is not the greatest, or sole, or only evil in the universe. There are things worse than death. Life forever apart from God’s presence, commonly called ‘Hell’ for the supreme example. But also trifles such as murder, even when done in the name of the ‘common good.’
The secular viewpoint on suffering is the one that permeates Western civilization, but it is worth first bringing out the example of Buddhism, which is another ‘religion’ that has ‘suffering’ at its heart. It has its own solution to ‘suffering’ which must be attractive to people, as it has garnered its own millions of adherents. In a nutshell, Buddhism’s answer to ‘suffering’ is that it isn’t actually real. It is an illusion. It is brought upon one’s self by one’s own search for pleasures and happiness. Here is the logic: If one does not have expectations, one will not suffer when those expectations are not met. If one does not love, one will not experience grief when the loved one dies. But remember, importantly, the suffering itself is also an illusion.
Christianity regards suffering as very real. In contrast to Buddhism, though, it insists that the pleasures and joys of life are also real. The things that the ascetic gives ups for the sake of his ‘spiritual’ quest are things that God made for the very purpose that they are enjoyed by humans. In fact, the idea that these material things are bad is considered a heresy within Christianity. The name of that heresy? Gnosticism.
In short, for the Christian, whatever pain and suffering accompanies us in this life, and no matter how wonderful we expect Life eternal to be, it does not change the fact that this life is worthy of living.
In saying that, I am not affirming hedonism. But in not affirming hedonism, I am not affirming the Buddhist Samudaya, which would have us abstain or ignore or berate any ‘temporal’ affair. What Christianity brings to the table is a balance of values and virtues, in the right proportion and perspective, so that we can at the same time acknowledge that ‘suffering’ is a serious matter, without letting it become a God to us that demands that we orient our entire lives (and the lives of others) towards alleviating it at the expense of all other values and virtues. Values that demand their place include affirming the reality of the joy found in relationships. Pleasures such as sex, beer, and song are affirmed as Good within Christianity–but in proper contexts and in the right proportions. (A clue as to what those proportions are is whether or not a particular attitude or behavior tends to kill you or others. Does anyone recall the blog entry I wrote on that?)
Before I delve deeper on the Christian’s approach to suffering, let’s talk about the other extreme take on the matter which dominates the West. This ‘extreme take’ is central to most of the non-Christian ideologies we encounter in the West, whether we’re talking about the secular humanists, the atheists, the nihilists, whatever. (The main exception are the Muslims). This view on suffering views it as really the only evil, so serious that even the tiniest amounts of ‘suffering’ justify moving the entire foundations of our life together in order to combat it. The case in point du jour: microaggressions, ‘safe spaces,’ and ‘trigger warnings.’ Still not quite out of fashion are the ‘participation awards.’
The ‘participation’ awards are a good introduction to the mentality. From refusing to keep score at kids’ soccer games, or giving out certificates of achievement for ‘graduating’ for first grade, etc, the underlying philosophy is this: we don’t want the ‘losers’ to feel bad. Do you want people to feel bad? YOU INSENSITIVE, EVIL MAN! The underlying philosophy to that is that ‘suffering’ in any degree is a horror to be avoided, at virtually all costs.
The giving out of the same awards to both winners and losers is a fad of sorts that seems to me to be in the decline, but it has only been replaced by more toxic expressions, such as the examples du jour I mentioned above. It is probably not a coincidence that the people most concerned with retreating to their ‘safe spaces’ are the ones who grew up receiving participation awards. Most likely (this is probably self-delusion on my part), even these trends will eventually be recognized as extreme. There is a solid chance, though, that these people will not abandon their perspective and will move from participation awards to safe spaces to taking over the reins of power and inflicting huge amounts of suffering on people in the name of, you guessed it, reducing suffering. (The people made to suffer will be the people that those in power deem indifferent to suffering, and therefore of all people, deserving to suffer.)
To put it directly, moderns are positively drunk on suffering. They wish to avoid it for themselves… at all costs. They wish to alleviate it for others… at any price. All issues are viewed through the prism of suffering as the greatest evil, both at the individual and corporate level.
The reason for this is basic: Western civilization has jettisoned all moral codes and frameworks as arbitrary or unfounded, or worse, ‘religious.’ There is, literally, no objective basis for declaring that anything is right or wrong. But nature abhors a vacuum, and as it happens, even atheists are made in the image of God, and they are despite their own ideologies, moral creatures. What rushes in to fill the vacuum has varied over time but they all share this common thread that with no objective moral basis available, we are free to make our own. And, being made in the image of God, humans tend to not enjoy suffering and do enjoy alleviating suffering. The ‘alleviating of suffering’ percolates to the top and becomes the underlying rationale for all kinds of schemes.
One of the earliest expressions of this is still common today: utilitarianism. Bentham and John Stuart Mill helped systematize this viewpoint, effectively boiling all ‘moral calculus’ to “the most good for the most people.” (Which obviously implies justification, with complete clean consciences, the inflicting of pain or suffering on some people, if it gives most people the ‘most good.’
Bentham put it this way in 1823:
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line [between humans and animals]? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? [emphasis added]
A few decades later, Darwin would put his stamp on human history, creating distinct variations on this theme. For example, ‘the most good for the most people’ obviously meant eliminating the ‘unfit’ as it harmed the species (either by using up finite resources best left for the ‘fittest’) or in future generations. The eugenics movement embraced this scheme. So did the Nazis, who before doing practically anything else passed its ‘Sterlization Law’ in 1933… the full title is revealing: Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Think about it. The Nazis had literally just taken power (also in 1933) and one of the first things they did was target ‘hereditarily diseased offspring.’ Heredity and the species (and the Volk’s) genetic heritage (a la Darwin) combined with the moral justification of reducing suffering (a la utilitarianism) was a driving consideration for the Nazis.
What? Don’t you care about our genetic heritage? Don’t you want to reduce suffering? Aren’t you the evil one!
A little known fact is that before the Nazis tried to eliminate the Jews, they first murdered hundreds of thousands of disabled people (fellow Germans, included), believing they were acting completely ethically in the highest traditions of science, as shown to them by one prominent set of German scholars who were infused with both Darwinism and utilitarianism.
Today, of course, with the Holocaust in the rear view mirror, this particular strand of anti-suffering sentiment is widely rebuked. Unfortunately, it remains the case that many arguments for euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, genetic justice, etc, all sound disturbingly similar to the arguments the Nazis entertained. The reason for this is because the Nazis merely drew up on rationales that had been spelled out decades before they came in power and the basic moral situation then, say, in 1910, is roughly the same as how it is today, in 2017. That is to say, there is no objective moral basis, but alleviating suffering seems like a no-brainer, so whatever else we decide about issues, the controlling question ought to be “does it reduce suffering or increase it?”
I have said much about these kinds of issues before and will say more in the future. One purpose I have in revisiting this is to point out that each generation and society will answer that question in its own ways, but since the core assumptions are wrong (ie, there really is an objective moral basis, and the alleviation of suffering while laudable, is not the only moral virtue), we can expect and predict that we will always see extreme applications resulting in unexpected, and more often than not, horrific outcomes. (Horrific when seen in hindsight, that is. In the moment, everyone will feel fully justified in their own eyes, as whatever they did was done with ‘good intentions’ for the ‘common good.’)
I do not want to be like C.S. Lewis, who did a great job tackling The Problem of Pain on an abstract level who then endured it and expressed it on a more visceral level in A Grief Observed. I am not going to try to explain why God is not to blame for our sufferings, or try to reconcile how there can be a Good God in a world drenched in pain and suffering. What I do want to do is point out that the Bible itself doesn’t do that, while at the very same time, it takes pain and suffering very, very seriously. What the Bible does do is put pain and suffering in perspective and context.
Take for example the life of Job. Not many people realize that the book of Job is in actuality probably the oldest book of the Bible, written even before the Moses penned Genesis, Exodus, etc. Thus, while people are aware that the book of Job is an account of one man’s complaint to God about intense suffering and evil, they are not usually aware that this complaint is, chronologically speaking, primary in the entire Bible. Now, that is taking suffering and evil seriously!
The answer that Job gets is perplexing, however. When God comes to answer Job’s charges face to face, God offers no answer or justification or defense for pain and suffering. God points out one obvious thing–“As the maker of the entire universe from scratch, He is well aware of what His creatures are going through. Duh.” But he rams home another important thing: ‘In all things, I am present.‘ Its similar to what happens when someone loses a loved one. We go to the funeral knowing full well that not only can we not explain why the person died (or why God allowed it in this particular case) but that such an explanation would be an absolute insult, anyway. What they long for is comfort, and explanations only go so far. The best comfort we can offer is our presence.
Christianity proclaims that God did not remain above suffering, but entered into it. He became a man, like us, in order that he can eat and drink, get diarrhea, watch loved ones die, and get tortured and murdered. His answer to suffering was to suffer himself.
God himself did not offer a grand explanation for why He allows suffering. His answer was to go beyond even what he offered to Job to participate in humanity’s tragic history with the promise that in doing so, he was setting things right, not in temporary fashion, but with everlasting finality.
As Peter put it in 1 Peter 4:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of references to God’s approach to suffering described in the Bible, and the New Testament in particular. No, God is not indifferent to suffering. His very purpose for us is to end it, decisively. However, for as terrible as suffering is, there are things worse. For example, everlasting existence apart from the presence of God. In light of that prospect, God has apparently decided He needs to allow both joy and suffering to co-exist for awhile, until He wraps up things in the manner He decides is best. The Christian has the same attitude in regards to our own suffering, as Christians. Now to Paul:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (ESV)
In light of what God has done in Christ, the Christian puts his own suffering into a greater context, such that Paul can declare, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
But now what to make of the charge that for all this compassion, Christians themselves seem to lack it?
This is a gross misrepresentation, made starker by contrast. To people for whom pleasure has become God and suffering, Satan, those who insist that both must be put into proper context and proportion will always seem callous, no matter what they do. Setting aside the obvious fact that individual Christians have always failed to be genuinely compassionate (ie, even within context and proportion), in the main, it has always been Christians who were on the front line of addressing pain and suffering. From the early Christians’ devotion to feeding the poor which made Julian the Apostate fume, to the monks acting on behalf of the destitute as the Roman Empire fall (Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”) to Mother Teresa doing the same in our own era–with the backing of a great apparatus of organized Christians who have given generously year over year over year to causes great and small (100 billion a year in America alone), to the fact that the actual word in English for our most important care facility–the hospital–was in fact derived from a Christian military order of the Middle Ages who–consider the irony in light of the accusation that Christians are militant and unconcerned about people–are not remembered for their military exploits at all, but for their humanitarian ones. These were the Knights Hospitallers, if you didn’t know.
Speaking of hospitals. Up until the 1980s, before the well-meaning and well-intentioned Federal law, EMTALA, passed in 1986, forced private, religious, non-profit hospitals effectively out of business, any trip into any town would make it plain just who exactly it was that was putting their money where their mouth was in regards to ‘compassion.’ The names of the hospitals gave it away: St. Judes, Gundersen Lutheran, St. Lukes, St. Anthony’s, etc, etc. (Stripped of their ability to operate as non-profits, organizations like Gundersen Lutheran in the Lacrosse area of WI are increasingly dropping their overtly religious rationales, and changing their names to reflect this fact.)
You will look in vain for St. Darwin hospital or St. Dawkins or St. Russell or St. Hume or St. Bentham or St. St. Mill.
I remember once encountering an atheist’s website where he sought to reverse the fact that for all their talk about easing suffering, the atheists were woefully uncharitable when it came to actually donating money, giving them a bad name compared to Christians, who actually were putting their money where their mouth was. A year or so later I visited again and the website had closed up shop, complaining about the selfishness of his fellow atheists. Irony, I know. (In trying to dig up that website again, I found this humorous complaint by an atheist about all the hospitals with religious names.)
Of course, your average secular humanists thinks that he is a very compassionate fellow, typically not because he himself does a lick to help people, but because he supports taxing other people into oblivion, using other people’s money and resources in support of programs that he supports, which he (sincerely) believes alleviates suffering. Much like today’s Twitter generation thinks they’ve contributed something important merely by issuing a hashtag, your everyday man on the street thinks he virtually saved the world, single-handedly, simply by pulling the lever for a Big Spending Politician.
This is not offered as a justification for the many failings of Christians over the centuries, but let’s keep it real. Before ‘compassion’ was Federalized under FDR, no one could seriously argue that Christians were callous. In fact, atheists like Margaret Sanger complained bitterly that the charity of Christians was actually perpetuating great evils! (She has a whole chapter on the ‘Cruelty of Charity’ in her book, The Pivot of Civilization.)
The current accusations, then, are relatively recent, and boil down to the basic fact that Western civilization has decided that any truly compassionate measure ought to be taken up by the Government, and if you truly considered yourself compassionate, you’d back their efforts. But Christians generally can’t go along with that scheme, because for as much as we care about people’s bodies, we also care about their souls. Not surprisingly, the very same people who want us to pour money into secular ‘compassionate’ programs, also insist that we limit ourselves to secular rationales. The only God they will let you talk about is the God of Government.
Which is no God at all.
And in a society that is hyper-sensitive to Suffering to the extent that it is common to see policies enacted and supported (and personal decisions made) on the basis that it is better that someone die rather than suffer, there is no way that Christians can accept that premise. The message of Jesus is in direct contradiction to such an extreme and distorted view on Suffering (and conversely, hedonism).
For now it seems that Christians are going to be accused of lacking ’empathy’ until such time that the extreme once again yields its bitter fruit. In the meantime, let us dispense with this nonsense that Christianity, Christians, or the Church do not, and has not, concerned itself with the poor and suffering. All of history and the facts refute such talk. What is really going on is that Christians approach such things on their own terms. And since they believe they are proceeding based on the world as it really is, they will continue to do so. When Rome collapses again, it will be the monks, again, supported by the great apparatus of their fellow believers, who step in to pick up the pieces.